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The latest Red Bull exile to return in Esports

Since he was ejected from the programme at the end of 2006, the latest Red Bull junior driver brought back into the fold to race in Formula 1 - in a virtual sense for the inaugural Virtual GP - has had quite the career journey. From ADAC GT Masters and Porsche Supercup to Le Mans and the DTM, here's how a works pro got to relive a long-forgotten dream

Philipp Eng (AUT), ADAC Berlin-BrandenburgWorld

Back in 2006, a young Austrian karting graduate with an instantly recognisable emblem on the roll-hoop of his Formula BMW waits on the Hockenheim grid to make his car racing debut, his head filled with dreams of one day racing for his wealthy backers' recently acquired Formula 1 team.

So when 15 years later Philipp Eng qualified his Red Bull on pole by half a second and stood on the podium in Bahrain - at least, a graphical representation of him standing on a rostrum - after Formula 1's Virtual Grand Prix last weekend, it was in some ways the realisation of a long-forgotten dream.

With the coronavirus pandemic putting an indefinite halt to real-life racing, F1 moved to fill the void with an Esports event at the Bahrain International Circuit. It featured current drivers Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi among an eclectic mix of well-known F1 names (Nico Hulkenberg, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez) and celebrity enthusiasts including golfer Ian Poulter (Renault), One Direction singer Liam Payne (Williams) and Olympic cyclist-turned sportscar racer Sir Chris Hoy (Red Bull).

Two-time Spa 24-hour winner and DTM race-winner Eng, 30, now in his fifth year as a BMW works driver, was among few professional drivers from other disciplines with no clear F1 links to take part. But it was fitting that he should have done so with Red Bull, given that his car racing career began as a member of the Helmut Marko-run junior scheme in ADAC Formula BMW.

Eng says his parents are "normal people" who "could have never paid for an entire season in a single-seater racecar", so was indebted to Marko to get him started in the series that had produced Hulkenberg, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg as previous champions. But while he scored one podium at the Lausitzring, Eng was rarely a front-runner and ruthlessly ditched by Marko at the end of 2006.

"The Red Bull Junior Team was starting to look for the next Formula 1 superstar and when I was 16, driving in Formula BMW, I was not the one," Eng admits today.

"It was pretty clear that in that certain moment, in that certain year, I was not an F1 prospect and that's why I lost the deal.

"It was fully deserved, because I was not good enough. And if you look at Max Verstappen, he was 16, he won many races in his first year in Formula 3 and he ended up being a Toro Rosso Formula 1 driver in the same year. I was nowhere close to being there, and that's why I was out."

Given another chance by Peter Mucke, the following year he improved to third in the standings as future BMW colleague Jens Klingmann took the title, before beating Klingmann to win the showpiece BMW World Finals at Valencia. It wasn't enough to change Marko's mind, however.

"If he thought that I was good enough, he probably would have taken me back on board, but he did not," says Eng. "That's fair enough, and I'm still happy about what they did for me.

"Always piecing the financial bits together just took too much of my attention and that's why I didn't get the results I needed to proceed" Philipp Eng

"They gave me a career. It was not in a Red Bull or an AlphaTauri Formula 1 car, but it's with one of the biggest car manufacturers worldwide in the second-highest form of racing you can do, which is DTM.

"There was never any bad blood between Red Bull and myself, because I appreciated they gave me the chance to show myself in Formula BMW in a racing car which I would have never driven without them."

After a patchy 2008 in which he struggled to find sponsorship, he moved into the centrally-run FIA Formula 2 championship for 2009 and won on a tragic weekend at Brands Hatch - sharing the podium with that year's champion Andy Soucek and Henry Surtees, who was killed the following day - to end the year eighth.

But he lost a key sponsor which meant his 2010 season was hand-to-mouth, although he won three times.

"I basically flew to every single race, even to Marrakech, and I didn't know if I was going to race, so it was a bit of a difficult situation," he says. "I could have coped with it a bit better, but always piecing the financial bits together just took too much of my attention and that's why I didn't get the results I needed to proceed."

A switch to GTs beckoned for 2011, but as part of a pro-am pairing in the highly competitive ADAC GT Masters championship could only muster a seventh place at the Nurburgring. That could have very easily marked the beginning of the end, but a move into one-make Porsche racing for 2012 in the German Carrera Cup with MRS-GT proved to be inspired.

Eng took a pole at Hockenheim and a first podium at the final round at the Nurburgring, improved to score four podiums in 2013 and then saw off a stern challenge from fellow Red Bull exile Michael Ammermuller to win the 2014 title.

He went better still in 2015, scoring a dominant second German series title and adding the Porsche Supercup title - only the third time both titles had been won in the same year after Frank Stippler and Rene Rast.

That earned Eng a BMW factory drive for 2016, winning the Spa 24 Hours for ROWE Racing - he would repeat the feat with Walkenhorst Motorsport in 2018 - and then a call-up to the DTM in 2018, along with appearances with BMW Team MTEK at Le Mans.

Like the rest of the world, Eng doesn't know when non-virtual racing will resume, with uncertainty over the DTM's first round at Zolder at the end of April. But until then, Eng will continue to stay match-sharp racing online - an activity he has enjoyed for over a decade, having started out on the GTR1 FIA GT game in the mid-2000s, and continues to indulge for around 15-20 hours per week.

While that might have something to do with Eng's strong impression in the Virtual GP, he says he was unfamiliar with the event platform and normally practices on iRacing.

"I have never done a race on F1 2019 before, so I had no idea how to do a pitstop and how to select the tyres or anything," he says. "I just did a few short runs to be shining in qualifying but I didn't think too much about the race."

After dive-bombing Johnny Herbert (Alfa Romeo), who cut the first corner to leap from 15th to the lead, Eng headed Renault F1 reserve driver Guanyu Zhou, but lost out on lap four at the Turn 4 right-hander. He held second through the pitstop phase until a moment in the long Turn 12 right-hander on the penultimate lap allowed Vandoorne to barge past into the following corner.

"Events like these are really cool to do because I have never raced against some of those guys like Lando and Nico Hulkenberg" Philipp Eng

But Eng says he isn't too disappointed about the outcome and is instead excited for more opportunities to show a captive audience of primarily F1 fans watching the Virtual GP what drivers from other categories can do.

"I'm not putting myself in the first row and saying I'm as good as anybody else in Formula 1, which would be a big statement, but I just like to race and I just like to drive," he says. "My mindset is that I always want to win and I always want to be the best I can be.

"Sometimes it's good enough, sometimes not, but events like these are really cool to do because I have never raced against some of those guys like Lando and Nico Hulkenberg for example. It was really exciting and cool that I could put it on pole in qualifying."

While Red Bull's latest returnee is under no illusions that his virtual opportunity will translate into a Brendon Hartley or Daniil Kvyat-style F1 Cinderella story, Eng is enjoying the extra attention and says he he's already earned 300 new Instagram followers.

"Especially in times like this, anything is possible and you can find new ways of racing," he says. "This scenario was together with Red Bull Racing, which was very cool and I was very honoured to be chosen by them. I don't think I did too bad and I would be happy to be there next time out!"

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